DISCLAIMER: The original anime Hagane no Renkinjutsushi and the movie Shambala wo Yuku Mono are based on characters by Arakawa Hiromu, with writing by Aikawa Shou. Characters, settings, and events have been adapted without authorization or approval, and I am making no profit from their use.
Although notes are not required to understand events in this chapter, extensive footnotes were written to provide background for curious readers. They are available on the LiveJournal version of this story (username: psiten).
"Down the Rabbit-Hole"
It had been an ordinary day for Paul Blackburn. He'd filed all the reports from East City on the progress of rebuilding the sewer mains, assigned the next detail of soldiers to be rotated into the garrison there, and watered the half-dead violet on his window sill. A perfectly ordinary day. Nothing that would have led him to expect the visitor who walked through his door at precisely 3:46 in the afternoon.
First the intercom on his desk began buzzing like mad, Heinkel's voice calling out in hysterics over the crackling of the line.
"Colonel Blackburn! It's... It's..."
"It's what?" he asked.
Then the door flew open and slammed into the wall. The blond standing in the doorway scrunched up his face, looking rather annoyed.
But it couldn't be. It just couldn't.
"You're not Colonel Mustang," was all the blond said.
"Ah, no, umm... Brigadier General Mustang is on the third floor now," Blackburn replied. "East Wing. Can I--"
"What the hell is he doing in R&D?!"
Blackburn stammered, still not sure he could believe his eyes. "It's... That's not... I mean, Research is in the West Wing. The Brigadier General is in charge of internal security. Is there anything I can--"
"Security, huh? Thanks," the blond replied, and turned to walk away without even closing the door.
Heinkel stood up from his desk outside, watching the unexpected visitor walk away and slam the door to the hall behind him, then turned to Blackburn with eyes looking almost panicked.
"Edward Elric," Blackburn answered with a nod, picking up his phone and dialing the third floor as fast as he could. His fingers were shaking, making it hard to aim for the right numbers.
"I thought he was dead!"
Blackburn only had time to shrug at his secretary to indicate that he had no explanation, as Mustang's aide always answered before the end of the first ring.
"Internal Security. This is Hawkeye."
"Ah, yes. This is Blackburn, Eastern Liaison. I, ah... I need to speak with Brigadier General Mustang, please."
"He's in a meeting."
"Ah, well..." He trailed off, suddenly not sure he wanted to commit to identifying the visitor. Mustang had to know to expect someone, but it wasn't as if he could be sure that this someone was who he appeared to be. His eyes might have been playing tricks, and if he were wrong, he'd definitely get a great deal of the infamous Roy Mustang's attention -- then probably a quick demotion out of Central. "There's someone... Someone just stopped by my office, looking for the Brigadier General, and... ah..."
"Short, blond hair, brown coat?" Hawkeye asked, not waiting for him to continue.
"Yes," Blackburn answered. "That was him."
"We're aware. Thank you for calling," she said, and the phone line went dead.
Running his finger slowly over the table of numbers, Alphonse double and triple checked all of the patterns he'd extrapolated. There was no doubt in the progression of the seasonal water levels near the Briggs Mountain Range that Russell and Fletcher had gathered in the last year -- the far Northern reaches were heading for a drought, and it didn't make any sense. Weather patterns hadn't changed at all.
If they were going to fix the imbalances, they'd have to look for another cause.
Alphonse looked up from his notebook with a start to see Schiezka standing in the door, a frantic expression on her face.
"Major Elric..." she said, panting hard and flushed as if she'd been running. "I was just in the cafeteria, and I heard Avia-san saying--! I mean, I couldn't believe it, but--"
"What did she say, Schiezka-san?"
"Edward-san! Your brother! People all over the building are saying they saw him walking around!"
He was on his feet before he could think, and his pencil fell out of his hand onto his charts, rolling away. He heard it hit the floor, but he couldn't have said where. "Nii-san?" he asked. "Here? Where in... Which hallway?"
"Coming around the corner outside of Colonel Blackburn's department -- she nearly ran into him, and he helped her pick up all the papers she dropped. I told her there had to be some mistake, but she said it was definitely Edward Elric, because she'd helped him find some books once, and after he said he was sorry for running into her, he started muttering something about Colonel Mustang moving his office."
Leaping up and grabbing his coat from the back of his chair, Alphonse vaulted the corner of his little desk and ran for the door in a daze of nervous excitement.
"Then I know where he'd be going," Alphonse said, flashing Schiezka a grin. She backed up to let him through the door, smiling in response. "Thanks a bunch!"
His shoes squeaked on the tile as he cornered hard and started sprinting down the West Wing's main hallway. "I'm glad I could help!" he heard Schiezka yelling behind him. Everyone in the hallway stopped whispering and moved to stand by the walls when they saw him dashing past. He was in luck -- no higher-ranked officers were out walking between his laboratory and the skywalk to the East Wing. He didn't have to stop, and made it there in just a breath or two.
He still had odd dreams now and then; memories of the years he'd traveled with Edward as a suit of armor resurfacing, or visions of his brother growing older and working hard in a strange, foreign world. When the generals had told him that they were moving his brother from the lists of soldiers whose location was unknown to the ranks of the missing and presumed dead, he'd nodded and kept his peace. They had their own way of doing things that didn't have anything to do with the peculiar link between the two of them. It was his brother who had kept his soul from disappearing, binding it to this world with his own life. A bond like that wasn't easily severed; he knew Edward was still alive.
Alphonse knew he was working as hard as he could to get back, by any means he could. He'd kept a journal by his bed to write down every detail of his dreams when he awoke to be sure he wouldn't miss any hint that he got.
It was just like his brother to surprise him anyway.
Before he knew it, he'd gotten to the front office of the Internal Security department. Captain Havoc looked up from his book with a casual salute to kick open the door. Captain Hawkeye was waiting inside, standing up to attention when he entered. He stood still long enough to return her salute with a smile. She nodded her head at the door and said, "He hasn't shown up yet, but go on in."
Alphonse breathed deeply, trying to calm his heart, which was hammering against his chest like a drum after his sudden run. He turned the door handle slowly and stepped inside. Brigadier General Mustang was alone, sitting at his desk and inspecting a piece of paper.
"Pardon me," Alphonse began, closing the door behind him.
Roy Mustang put the paper aside and leaned on the desk with an elbow. He knew he was supposed to salute upon meeting a superior officer, but the Brigadier had made it clear that he didn't want any ceremony when he was talking with 'old acquaintances'. Even though Alphonse only barely remembered the day they'd met, from memories of another life, for Mustang that was over a decade ago. Of course, even the five years since he'd gotten his old body back might count as a long acquaintance, but he'd only seen the Brigadier on a truly regular basis since he'd joined the military as a State Alchemist three months ago.
Besides that, in the scattered, hazy memories he'd regained, Roy Mustang had been much closer to his brother. Even while they'd both been preparing for the State Alchemists' exam, the officer had usually spoken to Edward -- and moreso after he was technically Edward's commander. But the Brigadier had said not to be so formal, so he just stood with a nervous smile and waited for the older man to speak.
"Well, if it isn't the Renewal Alchemist," Mustang answered at last. His tone seemed brighter than usual, less like the brusque demeanor of the Flame Alchemist who had earned every enemy he had in the upper ranks. Today, even his eyepatch didn't make him look particularly fearsome. "How kind of you to stop in. Have you solved the water crisis in the North already?" he asked with a laugh.
"Ah..." Alphonse's eyes went wide. Captain Hawkeye had just verified what Schiezka had said, hadn't she? Surely the Brigadier knew he wasn't here to discuss the situation in the mountains. "Not quite. We've identified some irregularities in the soil, but there's still a lot to be done... Sir."
"Well, you've done well so far," the Brigadier said. "I've been reviewing copies of your reports to see if they correlate with the movements of the border raiders from Drachma." The hint of cheerfulness showing on his usually serious face broke into a smile as he looked back down at the paper. "It's work worthy of the one of the Elric brothers."
He nodded slowly. "Thank --"
His sentence was cut off by Captain Hawkeye opening the door and standing silently to the side at attention. Half a second later, his brother stormed in, one metal leg clanking and a worn, brown trenchcoat billowing, carrying a crumpled piece of paper in his right hand. It could have been a scene right out of a daydream or even a memory -- though he'd clearly gotten slightly taller since he left. Even with the extra lifts added to the sole on his left shoe, his brother's stride was a little uneven as his metal leg didn't grow with him. He'd have to call Winry as soon as possible. Edward would probably be trapped in meetings with the generals for a long while.
And of course, his brother could have gone anywhere. He hadn't gone to Resembool, where Alphonse might have expected him to look for... well, him. Or Winry, even if he wasn't remembering to get a new leg and arm. He hadn't even taken the time to call anyone. He'd come straight here.
Still, he had to let out a long sigh of relief. It was one thing to have heard reports that he just knew had to be his brother. It was quite another to see Edward with his own eyes, really there. One look at the tension falling out of the Brigadier's shoulders told Alphonse that he felt exactly the same way.
"You're late, Fullmetal," Mustang said, relaxing back in his chair and crossing his arms across his chest with a smirk.
"Up yours." His brother reached the desk and slammed the paper down hard, the solid thump of his automail hand even rattling the window panes behind the desk. "Who's half-assed now, huh? Who're you saying sucks so much, he can't even find his way home across one little dimensional shift, and doesn't deserve to call himself an alchemist?!"
"Oh, so you found my note?"
Alphonse stared at the Brigadier, who looked horribly pleased with his brother's uproar. He was pretty sure he knew which piece of paper that was. He hadn't been able to read it, but soon after Edward had gone back to Earth three years ago, his brother found something in his pocket and gotten so horribly upset upon seeing it that the feeling had been strong enough to wake Alphonse right up from the dream. That had been a piece of paper, he recalled. A piece of paper just like this one, which he'd found while he was looking for his keys. And his brother had certainly been angry enough to want to yell at the Brigadier immediately upon arrival.
To think the Brigadier would have taken teasing Nii-san far enough to leave a note in his pocket!
Of course, there had been a kind of sadness about his dreams for the few nights before that -- a heavy, hopeless feeling that he'd almost forgotten about now, since it hadn't lasted long. If the Brigadier's decision to tease Edward from the other side of the gate was the reason that strange despair had disappeared, he might owe Mustang a thank you for his odd behavior.
Nii-san will never say it, after all, he reflected as he watched his brother's screaming fit.
"You can take your note and shove it where the sun don't shine," Edward barked, arched over the desk in the Brigadier's face with his hands planted to either side of a pile of paperwork, "and then you and your note can both go to hell!" If he'd been a cat, his hair would have been standing all on end.
"Nii-san!" Alphonse cried out. There was no mistake. That was his brother.
Edward's head whipped around and a huge smile filled his face. "Al!" In a flash of brown and yellow, his long-lost older brother sprinted back across the floor and squeezed him half to death with a hug. "Al! I made it! I'm back! How've you been?"
"I can't breathe, Nii-san!"
"Ah, sorry!" His brother stepped back, putting his hands up behind his head and grinning ear to ear. Alphonse knew his body was only fifteen, and his brother would be past twenty by now, but somehow he'd still managed to grow four inches taller.
Best not to mention it.
With a quick look at the uniform Alphonse was wearing, Edward continued, "Got you in blue, huh? Not bad."
"I decided to take the test again a few months ago," he answered, holding up his silver watch with a grin before remembering that they were standing -- even if without formality -- in a ranking officer's presence. Alphonse glanced quickly over his brother's shoulder at the Brigadier. He wasn't trying to reclaim Edward's attention, and he didn't look put out. In fact, he looked like he was just listening in.
His brother nodded his head back toward Mustang's desk, saying, "And now you have to put up with this jackass, huh?" The Brigadier General coughed quietly into his hand at the remark, but neglected to stop smiling. "How's he treating you?"
Alphonse waved his hands frantically. "Oh, no! I work in Research," he said, assuming Mustang's expression meant it was all right to let the comment slide. He wasn't eager to pick a nit with his brother about how the Brigadier wasn't really a 'jackass'; Alphonse got the feeling that mentioning anything of the sort wouldn't go over any better than mentioning their height difference. But when the man was sitting right there--
Well, it was Edward, of course. Brigadier General Mustang of all people should understand that.
"I was just stopping by to see you," Alphonse went on. "But Nii-san, how did you do it? I would've thought we'd notice another gate opening, like last--" He paused for a second, remembering 'last time'. In his excitement, he'd forgotten one thing: a gate was a gate. "There's not another army coming, is there?" he finished with some concern.
Edward looked up toward the ceiling, scratching the back of his head with a sigh of deep thought emphasized by his brother's particular dramatic flair. On the one hand, it was the sort of thing his brother might follow with, 'No, of course not! Who do you think I am?' But on the other hand, what if this was one of the times he planned to follow it with, 'Maybe? But just a little one!' ? Mustang made a more pointed cough this time, managing to look slightly less pleased overall. His brother's eyebrow twitched, but kept his back to the desk, ignoring it.
"Did you hear something, Al?"
He shifted his eyes nervously between his brother and the desk. "Ah..."
"Fullmetal," the Brigadier said intently.
His brother whipped around with a snarl. "There's no army coming, all right?! It's just me," he snapped in the direction of the desk.
"Thank you for the reassurance," Mustang answered, leaning his elbows on the desk and his chin on his hands. "I'm not sure I could have heard the invasion over your stomping and screaming." Then the Brigadier General checked his watch with a troubled sigh and opened a nearby file on his desk. "Now, I'm sorry to interrupt the family reunion, Alphonse-kun, but I'm afraid I will need to hear Edward's official report on crossing back before he's called to give it to the advisory council."
His brother bared his teeth in a slightly manic grin, as if there weren't anything he'd rather do. Alphonse remembered that look. That look usually meant trouble. Turning quickly back, he winked at Alphonse and slapped him on the shoulder. "You'd better tell me everything once you're off the clock," Edward said.
Alphonse nodded, and heard Captain Hawkeye stepping out and closing the door. Meanwhile, he was still standing there. Should he follow her? The Brigadier hadn't asked him to leave, so that meant it was okay for him to stay and listen, right? And he really wanted to hear. There was a chance the military would decide it was classified information, of course, but Edward would tell him later, which Mustang should know. Why not just stay to hear it now?
He followed with only a slight hesitation as his brother strode over to one of the chairs in front of Mustang's desk. While he took the other seat, he couldn't help wondering if perhaps the Brigadier was just too busy having a glaring match with his brother to notice that he was still here. Well, his brother was glaring. The Brigadier was just as focused, but he looked amused.
"You want a report, Colonel? I'll give you a report."
"Please. Enlighten me, Fullmetal," Mustang replied.
Edward opened his jacket and reached into a pocket inside, rummaging for a moment before pulling out a thin brown hardcover book, which he then threw on the desk. Alphonse sat nervously in his chair, keeping his hands folded in his lap and his mouth closed, even though he very much wanted to know what was written there. He'd find out soon enough, he told himself. Meanwhile, his brother waited with uncharacteristic patience for Brigadier General Mustang to pick up the volume and flip through a few pages. After a moment, the Brigadier's one good eye went wide and his eyebrow arched high. While he scanned the text, engrossed, a small motion from his brother caught Alphonse's eye. Keeping his attention fixed on Mustang, he leaned forward and silently pulled the note he'd been so angry about off the desk. After he slid the paper into the pocket where the book had been, he resumed his old position and waited, eyes still locked on the progress of the Brigadier's reading. Finally, Mustang closed the little book again, looked with some confusion at the cover, and proceeded to redirect that confusion at his brother.
"You published a novel?" the Brigadier asked, then glanced at the conspicuously empty desk where the note had been a moment earlier.
Alphonse raised an eyebrow, turning from Mustang back to his brother, not quite sure whose behavior confused him more. Now he was both extra curious as to what was in the book and somewhat afraid to find out -- though not quite curious enough to completely stop wondering why Edward would want to keep that note. Hadn't he come to return it?
Nii-san, he worried inside his head. What are you trying to do now?
His brother cleared his throat to call Mustang's attention back to the answer he was about to give and leaned forward on his knees, matching the Brigadier General stare for stare. Alphonse held his breath, waiting in a panic to hear what Edward was going to say.
"I fell down a rabbit-hole," was the reply.
He stared blankly at his brother's smug grin. Alphonse had expected something unexpected, but that was more unexpected than he'd really been prepared for.
When Mustang sat back in his chair, leaning on one of the arm rests, Edward fell back in his own and crossed his arms across his chest.
The Brigadier's expression turned deliberately calm, even though Alphonse was sure that anyone would still be confused after something like that. As explanations went, it was awfully strange. "You fell down a rabbit-hole," he repeated.
His brother just shrugged. "That's my story, and I'm sticking to it."
Cringing just a little, Alphonse wondered if Edward was trying to make it obvious that he was lying, or if this was just his usual complete lack of concern for people's opinions.
The Brigadier simply scratched his chin and replied, "I see." He didn't look very convinced. Alphonse had to admit, of course, that the story wasn't very convincing. Despite that, Mustang picked up a pen and set the point on the paper in front of him, tapping it a few times. He paused there, not writing, and turned the line of his attention back up to Edward with a troubled sigh.
"Was this a particular rabbit-hole, or are Leporids on this 'Earth' known for digging burrows that reach into other worlds?" he asked in a tone that Alphonse knew was sarcastic, but -- for once in his experience with the Brigadier -- thought might not be sarcastic enough. If he didn't know better, he would have said that Mustang was actually going to enter this into an official record, even though he had to know his brother was telling a story.
The Brigadier could tell. Alphonse was sure of it. Certainly, on an issue so important, when rumor had it Mustang had half the generals on the council watching his every move for another step out of line, he wouldn't help Edward tell a lie that bad.
His brother jumped to his feet, tapping the cover of the book with his left hand and turning red in the face as he yelled. "Did you even read the first page?! Freaking huge rabbit, with a watch, who talks." Alphonse sat up a little higher in his chair, trying to get a better look at the cover. Sure enough, there was a rabbit there, standing on his hind legs and wearing a vest. "How obvious does a chimera have to be?!" Edward demanded. "And this girl follows him into a world full of chimera and elixirs and... and playing card golems, for crying out loud! I thought it had to be a dimensional rift. So I found it," his brother finished, sitting down with a shrug and crossing his arms again. "End of report."
"Nii-san..." Alphonse broke in, wincing.
Edward turned to face him with a questioning noise.
"... Nevermind." He was sure his brother had thought about his story for a long time and determined that this was the best thing to do. It probably wasn't, since his brother was a horrible liar, but he certainly wouldn't be able to talk him out of it now.
He'd ask what Edward thought he was doing, telling a story like that, sometime later -- after they'd left Central Headquarters and gone home for the evening.
Besides, the Brigadier General would probably like to ask for himself, and there was some pretense that this was his brother's report to a superior officer -- even if it strained credibility. Mustang was flipping through the book again, clearing his throat. Looking pointedly at Edward and then back at an early page, he started reading out the text.
"Enquiries have been so often addressed to me," he began, and Alphonse saw an uncomfortable blush starting to rise on his brother's face, "as to whether any answer to the Hatter's riddle (see page 60) can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer." Mustang narrowed his eyes at Edward, who looked up at a far corner of the room, brushing his bangs off his face. "Viz.," he began again, "'Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat; and it is... 'nevar' put with the wrong end in front." Shutting the book, he finished, "This, however, is merely an afterthought: the Riddle as originally invented, had no answer at all."
His brother turned back and laced his fingers behind his head. "And?"
Alphonse's head drooped, and his hands clenched tighter in his lap. He was fairly certain he was feeling enough embarrassment right at that moment to make up for his older brother's complete lack of shame.
The Brigadier dropped the volume back on the desk and pushed it towards Edward, shaking his head. "Honestly, Fullmetal. If you're going to try and sell the council this kind of a fantasy, the least you could do is tear out the author's preface."
"You want me to tear pages out of a book!?" his brother gasped, clenching his hands on the arm rails and turning as white as he'd been red a moment before.
The rising level of murderous rage in the air was enough to make Alphonse wince again. His brother really liked books.
"I'd prefer it if you'd tell me what you're so intent on keeping out of your official account," Mustang replied, closing the file and pushing it away. "Nursery stories aside."
Edward grinned, fishing inside another pocket in his jacket -- this time, one on the outside. "Check this out," he said with a laugh. His tone made Alphonse perk up. The glimpses of this and that he'd seen in his dreams over the past few years -- the strange diagrams and equations flashing piecemeal before his eyes as he slept -- were all things he couldn't trust himself to reproduce when he woke up, let alone understand without context. If Edward was about to explain what had actually happened, he didn't want to miss an instant.
A moment later, his brother set a brass machine not much bigger than a pocket watch on the desk. It stood on a tripod, with tube the size of his little finger on one leg feeding into a tiny maze of capillaries that surrounded a clear globe. Inside was another globe, mounted like a gyroscope and filled with tiny gears. The overall shape and construction was vaguely familiar. He could recall an image or two of his brother at work in a small, wood-paneled room, shaping grey spheres like the ones mounted in the gear-work and testing them somehow.
He remembered the iron shavings his brother used in the tests, how they snapped into lines radiating out of opposite points on the spheres, how Edward had measured the distance of the furthest row of shavings when he'd picked the ones he'd used, and how he'd marked the points on the surface where those lines converged.
Magnets. They were magnets, Alphonse recalled.
Edward pulled the book a few inches closer and placed the brass tripod carefully on top. Leaning down, he blew into the large tube gently, soft enough that Alphonse couldn't even hear him exhale.
The gears moved slowly, spinning the six magnets inside the central globe in erratic orbits around nothing. After the initial revolution, they rearranged abruptly with a clank, now spinning in cleaner, more perfect circles. As they did, both device and book seemed to wobble -- even while sitting firmly on the solid desk. Alphonse's eyes widened slightly, then darted up to look at the Brigadier. Even Roy Mustang wasn't bothering to look disinterested. His eyes were fixed on the unstable book and the strange little device with a great deal of fascination.
His brother stopped blowing and looked up at the Brigadier. As the gears slowed, the book regained its steadiness. "It's a Quantum Dimensional Oscillator," he said. "Those magnets spinning in there set up an electromagnetic field -- six of them to lay in an exact vector to push me back home. The faster they spin, the stronger the field."
Frowning, Alphonse considered that, even with the scattered dreams of his brother's years on the other side of the gate, he couldn't quite make sense of the explanation. He knew what magnets were, and he knew what electricity was, but he had never heard of electromagnetics, and he didn't immediately see how a spinning magnet could make you unstuck in space the way he'd just seen it work on the book. He'd only ever known them to stick to metal. That was fine, though. He'd have all the time in the world to get his brother to explain the theory properly. It was more the word 'push' that was bothering him, since it sounded like his brother had decided to put himself on the head of a kind of invisible battering ram to open the door between the two worlds. He'd seen the tremendous amount of power it had taken to open the gate Edward had stepped through to get lost in the first place, and the invading army's gate had uprooted most of the city. That was no small level of force.
Nii-san, why must you always dive in recklessly like that? What if you'd gotten hurt?
It was some consolation that his brother was standing right in front of him without a scratch, clearly unharmed by the trip. "I hooked this thing up to a steam engine," he was saying while Alphonse worried, "and boom! Here I was, headfirst in a haystack on some farm in the middle of nowhere. Gave the farmer what was left of the steam hose. I think he used it to patch a fence."
"Lucky for your head there was a haystack to land in, I suppose."
His brother scoffed at what Alphonse considered a perfectly legitimate expression of concern, and Brigadier General Mustang picked up the device to examine it more closely. "Please tell me that you built this, and that there aren't any more like it," he continued, his tone quiet and serious.
Alphonse turned back to his brother nervously. He'd said that there wasn't an army coming through now, it was true, but he'd created a travel device in only three years. What if more people in that world could do the same? What was more, he'd come through without anyone noticing him until he'd walked into Central Headquarters. The only thing that might deservedly put the country more on alert than a possible invasion was a possible sneaky invasion.
"That's the only one," Edward answered, which relieved Alphonse at least. Mustang didn't look nearly as reassured. His brother shrugged and sat down again, going on without the least concern. "I brought all my notes with me, too. Not that it'd do 'em much good if they had a spare, though, since it only worked because I didn't belong there."
The Brigadier General frowned, turning a questioning stare from the little object in his hand to where Edward was lazing in his chair. "What do you mean by that?"
"Well, in theory you could set it up so they could come here, or one of us could go there," his brother replied, scratching the tip of his nose while he scrunched up his face, and sounding more put-out by the second, "but you'd have to be able to align the magnets in the fifth and sixth dimensions, and you'd need a hell of a lot more power than I used." As he went on talking, Edward's face lit up with the grin he always had when he felt particularly brilliant. "It turns out, a strong magnet reacts to the way electromagnetic fields got warped all around me, and I figured that'd carry across to all the dimensions. I decided to try making the gears self-adjusting so they could set up a vector on their own. And, boy, could I feel it when I got that right. It was like a sock straight to the gut -- I couldn't even eat til the next day."
The comment left Alphonse's toes curling in his shoes. Possibly it would be more reasonable not to be overly concerned for Edward's general health and well-being because of a temporary inability to eat when his brother was now clearly safe and sound. He was just over-reacting. But on the other hand, his brother couldn't possibly have done enough testing to make sure his little mechanism was safe before he'd tried it. For all he could have known, this method he'd found could have put him in serious danger. Then again, was there an option he could have been sure was safe, without an arrangement that would let him see through the gate to the result of a 'push' to Amestris? The fact that his brother was sitting here at all was only because he took those kinds of stupid risks. Yelling out 'Nii-san, what if you'd died!?' would be like saying he shouldn't have bothered to come home. That was the last thing Alphonse wanted, to be sure.
Silence dragged on as Alphonse tried to put out of mind both the potential dangers and the fact that his brother didn't seem to notice them properly. Meanwhile, Edward looked quickly back and forth between Alphonse and Mustang. "What's with you two?"
The Brigadier was staring right back at his brother, not exactly looking as terrified for Edward's safety as Alphonse felt, but not best pleased either. Then Mustang closed his eye, rubbing his forehead with a quiet sigh. "Nothing," he said, turning back to reexamine the array of magnets in the apparatus his brother had produced. "So, you're saying this would be definitively impossible to align?" he asked after thinking for a moment. "Even for you?"
Alphonse was terribly uncertain what was meant by aligning anything in more than three dimensions, but as Mustang seemed willing to accept the concept for the moment, he bit his tongue as well. The fact that Edward meant it to sound difficult was clear enough, certainly, even without the glimpses of many-colored diagrams that had bled across the connection between his brother and himself, full of curving lines and unfamiliar marks and arrows pointing every which way. Another thing for the list of things he'd ask his brother to explain later, he supposed.
Edward's face settled into a dark scowl, and his voice fairly dripped with irritation. "Wouldn't be a piece of cake, but yeah, it might be possible."
"And how much power would you say is 'a hell of a lot'?" Mustang asked next.
"You know," Edward replied, "there's a reason why I don't want the military to have that thing."
Mustang broke his stare away from the tripod, turning a raised eyebrow on his brother as he set the device down on the desk. "Well, then. I imagine you must be certain that nothing like it will bring itself to their attention. So reassure me -- how much power?"
Edward's annoyance clearly wasn't wilted in the least by the Brigadier's expression, but no one would want to be the person who could have warned the country about an invasion and didn't. Alphonse was sure that even his brother would have to admit it was a relevant question. "To blow a hole in the fabric of the universe and turn it inside out? How about a metric fuckton?"
"In standard units, please, Fullmetal," Mustang said, crossing his arms and using a tone that anyone would know who'd seen his brother and the Brigadier in the same room together. It was a tone that said he was willing to be very patient, and that no one would be leaving until he got an answer he liked.
After letting out a frustrated sigh, Edward shut his eyes tight and dropped his chin down to think hard before answered. A moment later, he said, "Around... six trillion, seven hundred thirty-six thousand one hundred seventy billion, sixty-four thousand six hundred thirty-two million, four hundred forty-eight thousand two hundred eleven point eight joules." Opening his eyes again, he glared at the Brigadier. "Ish. You know, a lot." When the only response Mustang had was to aim an exaggerated look of concern at the device with a sigh, he shot to his feet again, slamming his hands on the desk. "You'd need the combined energy of about a billion loaded trucks doing 160, all right?" he yelled. "All aimed at the head of a pin!"
Alphonse cringed, recoiling from the tempers flaring around him and wishing they could just go back to being happy his brother was back home in one piece, as increasingly unlikely as the prospect seemed.
After considering a moment longer, Mustang took his seat, folding his hands and turning his gaze away from the strange little artifact in the middle of his desk to laugh softly at the overreaction. Edward, at least, seemed to calm down. Alphonse wasn't sure whether he should be more relieved that his brother had found some loophole that had kept him from needing that much power, or worried that some army from one world or the other would find a loophole like it and start another war. Both what he was saying about the astronomical force making a gate would require and what he was saying about having bypassed that force sounded like he was telling the truth.
Quieter now, with a little less irritation in his stance, his brother flicked the tripod with his finger. "I don't think a toy like that could take much more than I fed it without busting, let alone that kind of pressure. Not to mention the unlucky bastard who'd get splattered trying it out."
Alphonse saw the Brigadier's eye widen for an instant when those last words came out of Edward's mouth. As for himself, he thought his heart might stop. If there was anything more nervewracking than thinking his brother hadn't stopped to imagine the possible repercussions of his actions, it was knowing he had done so and then proceeded without so much as a helmet.
It seemed very unlikely that his brother had bothered with a helmet.
"Then I'm glad you had so much success with your steam engine," Mustang said, his expression turning stern. "If you were to 'splatter' like an ordinary man, I'd be in a bit of a difficult situation here."
"Are you calling me a liar?" Edward growled.
"Asks the man who's planning to say he fell through a rabbit-hole."
His brother's spine went straight and his face apoplectic with anger as he yelled "That's different!" before retreating a step to collapse into his chair with visible annoyance. Edward slumped down and closed his eyes, rubbing his temples with his fingers. "Where's Einstein when you need him?" he muttered. "I hate explaining this shit."
Alphonse had his hazy memories telling him that this was just how the two of them behaved, fighting like two cats with one fish to share over every little thing, but in a way, this was the first time he'd seen it with his own eyes. If they really did get along this badly, why was Mustang's office the first place his brother had decided to go? Surely even an aggravating note wouldn't make him head to Central to see someone he couldn't stand instead of to Resembool.
Well, actually... I suppose Nii-san just might.
Alphonse turned from his brother's slouched figure to the man on the other side of the desk, and when he looked, he had to blink to be certain he wasn't imagining things -- specifically, the way the Brigadier's face had changed after Edward had closed his eyes. The hard mask of the man who'd been chiding his brother not two seconds before had melted away into the face of someone who wasn't the least bit upset. He looked fond -- even happy, with a hint of a smile that was nothing at all like a smirk crossing his lips. Just... It was maybe silly to think, but Alphonse had the oddest certainty that Brigadier General Mustang was just glad to see him.
And why would Mustang have written his brother a taunting note anyway, if not to make sure he would find a way back? Even if it was only to throw that note in his face...
And then inexplicably steal it back to put in his pocket. Perhaps his brother wasn't as upset as he'd claimed?
No, Alphonse thought. That would just be silly. He was sure he could tell when his brother was really, actually upset and when he was playing. There must have been another reason.
The Brigadier caught his stunned stare before too long; Alphonse saw Mustang look in his direction quickly before clearing his throat and adjusting his expression again to one that was better suited to an officer taking a subordinate's report. "I'm quite clear on the level of power that was required to open doors between the two worlds in the past," Mustang said to break the silence, checking his watch, then pulling the file he'd opened earlier toward him and taking up his pen. "Human transmutation, the construction you described during the invasion... That makes perfect sense. Your steam engine and magnetic paperweight are another matter entirely."
Edward stopped brooding enough to open one eye and reply in a surly tone. "Yeah, well, I wasn't trying to flip time and space on their asses, was I?" he said, not even bothering to sit up. "I'd already done it when I walked through to their side."
"How convenient," Mustang replied, answering his brother's slouch by not looking up from the notes he was writing in his file. "Explain that, if you would, Fullmetal."
"It's like..." His brother sat up properly when he began, pausing and screwing up his face like he'd never thought harder in his life. "It's like there's not two worlds, there's just one world, but we're the front and they're the back. Or like... Here, look at this." Edward pulled off one of this gloves, waiting for Mustang to look up. "See this? How it's got an inside and an outside?"
From the way the Brigadier hid his mouth behind his hands when he leaned his elbows on the desk, Alphonse had a suspicion that he was smiling that smile again. "Oh, certainly," he said. "Go on."
His brother tore a hole open in the back of the glove with a jerk and reached in to pull a point of fabric from the inside up through the hole in a peak, twisting the whole glove around strangely. Alphonse remembered a diagram like this, too, from a little over a year ago. He'd tried to sketch it in his dream journal about three times and scratched them all out as too confusing before the image left in his memory had faded. "That was me. That took work. But to go back through..."
Edward picked the glove up by one end, and as the twists in the fabric righted themselves, the peak he'd pulled from the inside the glove fell back into place. "No major pressure required. And the whole matter-energy-space system has one big electromagnetic field that I'd gotten all twisted up around me because I'm from here, where everything's upside-down and backwards to there, and-- Don't laugh when people are talking to you!"
He looked up from his brother's glove demonstration to see that the Brigadier had dropped his hands and was trying to contain a full-blown grin. It only took a moment for him to succeed at containing it, resuming the pleasant expression he'd been wearing when Alphonse had first walked in. "It's good to have you here, Fullmetal," Mustang said and picked up his pen once more.
Pulling his glove back onto his hand, his brother grumbled, "Don't you even think I came back because of that stupid note you left in my pocket, either. I would've done it anyway."
"Oh, you fulfilled my expectations precisely."
The Brigadier and his brother stared each other down for another moment without speaking. The atmosphere wasn't exactly hostile, but Alphonse had the uncomfortable feeling that, as interesting as his brother's explanations were, stepping outside with Captain Hawkeye might have been a better choice.
His brother scowled and sighed, turning his eyes away as he clapped his hands and touched the rip in his glove, healing it up like it had never been. As he did, the Brigadier turned, thoroughly fascinated, to the little curiosity sitting on his desk. When Edward looked up and noticed, he spoke again, this time more quietly than before.
"I'm serious when I say I don't want the brass to know that thing exists. There's a known process to open that door from our end. If they find out they can get back here with no problem, they might want to use it."
The Brigadier General looked hard at the construction of metal and glass, pushing it slowly in a circle with one finger and narrowing his eyes in thought before finally pushing it back towards Edward. His brother didn't even say a proper 'thank you' when he picked it up and put it back in his pocket, but both men gave each other a look that told Alphonse they'd reached whatever understanding they'd needed. Mustang pulled the novel back across the desk and started to page through the text, tapping his pen on the paper. "As much as I'd like to let you go, I received a message a few minutes before you both came in that the Council of Generals wants to hear your official report today," he said, pausing to check his watch again before resuming his examination of the rabbit story. "...In rather less than half an hour. Congratulations, Fullmetal: your sudden and miraculous appearance at our front door has caused the Council to set new records for efficiency."
His brother let out a quiet laugh that didn't sound amused.
"I know that you and Alphonse have a great deal to catch up on. Quite frankly, I wouldn't mind taking you out for a drink myself, but I've been ordered to escort you to chambers at 4:30 PM. That doesn't leave much time here."
"What, you mean you're not Fuhrer already?"
Mustang looked up from the book briefly, but didn't reply.
"Look, I've got it," Edward continued. "I'll go, and we'll get this overwith." Then, he turned to Alphonse to say, "I'll find you over in R&D once they're done with me, Al. I'm sorry."
"Oh no, that's pretty much what I expected, Nii-san. I'll wait for you." He stood up from his chair, not certain if he should salute or not now that he wasn't technically alone with the Brigadier. Eventually, Alphonse decided that having his brother for company made the group less formal and not more so. He bowed quietly to excuse himself, and started walking towards the door.
Over his shoulder, he heard the Brigadier asking, "Are you certain that a magic rabbit-hole is the best you can do?"
Alphonse turned back around once he'd pulled the door open a crack, just in time to see his brother fishing something else out from inside his coat.
This time, it was a green book. "I've got one with flying monkeys and silver shoes," he said, not sounding any more worried than when he'd suggested the rabbit. "Would that be better?"
With a smile, he stepped out and closed the door behind him, saluting Captain Hawkeye again before walking slowly back to the laboratory. His brother was home, after all.
Everything was going to be all right.
to be continued...